DOT defers $52 million in I-90/39 project work

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Neil Johnson
July 13, 2015

NEWVILLE—The ink hasn't dried on the state biennial budget, and already some delays to the long-planned Interstate 90/39 expansion project are beginning to manifest themselves.

State Department of Transportation officials say it's still too early for the agency to detail exactly how major projects such as the I-90/39 expansion could be affected by a state budget that cuts $450 million in borrowing from Gov. Scott Walker budget proposal.

But last week, the DOT deferred bids slated to be let next month for two I-90/39 expansion-related projects in Rock County that total $52 million, according to a state highway project bidding advertisement. Those projects include:

—A $35 million project to rework the I-90/39 and Highway 59 interchange at Newville and repave a 1.8-mile stretch between Knutson Road and the Rock/Dane county line.

—Work on the Rock River bridge replacement and expansion in Newville, a $17 million project.

The projects were slated to roll out in tandem later this fall or early next year, according to earlier DOT plans. They'd been scheduled for August bid-letting until very recently, according to a DOT master project list dated July 1.

DOT officials confirmed the two are part of a handful of large-ticket projects that are being deferred while the agency awaited Walker's signature and any potential vetoes on the road-funding package contained in the $73 billion state budget.

Walker did not veto parts of the road-funding plan before signing the budget Sunday. State Department of Administration spokesman Cullen Werwie said Monday he believes Walker left transportation funding untouched in the budget he was handed.

The plan slices off about a third of the $1.3 billion in borrowing Walker had proposed to fuel road improvements, and it allocates about $500 million in bonds to the DOT.

Another $350 million in bonds are under the control of the legislative Joint Finance Committee. The DOT would have to go back to the committee next year to justify funding for further work on road projects.

The DOT has acknowledged the I-90/39 project, one of the largest on the books in the next decade, will face delays under the Legislature's roads borrowing plan.

Last week, the agency supplied The Gazette with an internal document that listed its plans and monthly bid deadlines for I-90/39 expansion over the next two years.

The list showed the Newville projects that were deferred could go out to bid in September, and it showed a slew of bids for other I-90/39 work spread out over the next two years.

The DOT said the list was generated in “mid-June,” weeks before the Legislature unveiled its plan to crimp roads borrowing. Some other changes to the list were made in “early July,” Steven Theisen, a DOT spokesman for the I-90/39 expansion project, wrote in an email.

Scott Lawry, a project proposal manager for the DOT, said late last week that the DOT could reschedule the Newville projects' bids until sometime later this year, but he wasn't sure when.

Theisen would not say whether the DOT document supplied to The Gazette signified any firm or current plans.

“Those two (Newville) projects were deferred due to the ongoing budget deliberations. Beyond that, WisDOT needs to have final budget language and an opportunity to review it before providing further details on how it will impact specific projects,” Theisen wrote in an email.

It's not yet clear whether ongoing delays to bids on highway projects mean that the projects won't get worked on.

But funding is now in shorter supply for road projects, according to a state overview of the legislative version of the budget.

The budget overall allocates $485 million in funding for major highway projects, a category that includes I-90/39. But that funding is split evenly over two years, and it signifies a 50 percent cut in funding compared to the $367 million the DOT had to spend on highway projects last year.

Most of the cuts come from reductions in borrowing, according to the review.

The I-90/39 expansion, slated for completion in 2021, is estimated to cost  $900 million to $970 million, according to the DOT. It has dozens of phases and side projects spread out among three segments of the 45-mile span between Beloit and Madison.

In the next two years, the DOT estimated $475 million in work for the expansion project, according to a 2014 Gazette report.

In the next two months alone, the I-90/39 project has $77 million in work, according to DOT documents. That's a large part of the $192 million in roadwork slated statewide during that same time frame.

State Sen. Janis Ringhand, a Democrat who represents the 15th District where the two I-90/39 projects are being deferred, says she's crossing her fingers that the DOT and Legislature will find ways to keep the timeline intact.

She said dozens of lawmakers are still pushing for a review of ways the state could generate more revenue to create a permanent solution for road funding.

Some state Assembly members had made a request that the Joint Finance Committee order an audit of how the DOT schedules and bids out construction projects.

However, Walker deleted that request as part of his 104 vetoes, saying the Joint Finance Committee already has authority to order such an audit.

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